General manager sought to head 41,000case winery
RUSSIAN RIVER VALLEY — Ron Rubin, owner of Novato-based The Republic of Tea, has added ultrapremium wine to his premium beverage holdings with the acquisition of River Road Vineyards & Winery near the west Sonoma County community of Forestville.
Through Rubin Vineyards LLC, Mr. Rubin, 62, acquired the winery and 12 acres of vines from the Mills family on Tuesday for an undisclosed amount. The winery produced 41,000 cases last year and slightly more this year. As part of the deal, the winery’s six employees will remain on board, including winemaker Joe Freeman.
“We produce quality teas, and we wanted to produce high-quality wine,” Mr. Rubin said Thursday.
He acquired The Republic of Tea in 1994, two years after founders of Banana Republic started it. Sales of packaged and bottled teas now total more than $20 million a year.
In October, the company went even more high end, spinning off Rare Tea Republic to cater to connoisseurs. With sourcing described in fine wine terms as “small lot” and single estate,” these fresh teas come from north India and the Himalayas and retail for $6 to $30 per 50-gram bag.
Mr. Rubin studied enology and viticulture four decades ago at the University of California at Davis while earning his undergraduate degree in finance. He then worked at his family’s beer, wine and spirits wholesale business Central Wholesale Liquor Co. in Mount Vernon, Ill., for 22 years.
“I’ve always had the dream of owning a vineyard and winery in California,” he said.
For the past two years, he’s had Forestville-based wine industry real estate broker John Bergman scouting Napa and Sonoma counties for such an opportunity.
Meanwhile, winery co-founder Gary Mills, 67, had considered selling two years ago. In June, Mr. Bergman cold-called Gary Mills about selling, and negotiations began. The vineyard’s Gold Ridge soils, characteristic of the Green Valley area of the Russian River appellation, were attractive, Mr. Rubin said.
“The family has been doing this for a long time, and it’s just our time,” Mr. Mills said Thursday after operating a forklift in the winery. As part of the sale, he’ll remain involved with the winery for a year, then he plans to devote more time to his love of outdoor sports, particularly skiing.
The brand has weathered the economic turbulence of the past three years well, thanks to the majority of sales coming from a Sonoma County chardonnay that often retails for around $10 a bottle, Mr. Mills said.
Mr. Mills and brother Steve Mills started River Road Vineyards with the purchase of a 78-acre vineyard on River Road in Russian River Valley in 1976 follow a few years later by a 48-acre vineyard on River Road in Alexander Valley. Now the operation has 12 acres of vines and has purchase contracts for the rest of production. Several years ago, Steve Mills left the business, but their father continued to have River Road as a client of his CPA practice.
The wine brand started as a way to reap revenue during times of grape surpluses, and the winery was finished in 2003.
Brand marketing will be getting a boost under Mr. Rubin’s ownership. He hired Diana DiRoma as national sales manager, a first for River Road Vineyards, and is recruiting for a general manager with the help of Santa Rosa-based WinePro Recruiters International (707 571-0400, www.winepro.com).
The Republic of Tea’s public relations, website design and information technology resources will be tapped to make wine consumers more aware of the brand and boost online sales.
However, Potomac, Md.-based Total Wine & More, which has stores in 10 states and has been the main sales channel for the River Road brand over the years, will continue to sell the wine.
The Republic of Tea has 100 employees — called “ministers” — at its production, pick-and-pack and distribution facility near the southern Illinois town of Nashville and at its corporate headquarters at Hamilton Landing in Novato.
The story was updated to include contact information for the firm recruiting for the general manager position.
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